Amo, Anton Wilhelm, an African Philosopher in Eighteenth-Century Germany
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Related TopicsMind/body Descartes Sensations Passions Slavery
During the early eighteenth century, Anton Wilhelm Amo, an African slave from the Gold Coast of Guinea, lectured on philosophy at three German universities and formulated a considerable critique of Descartes’ mind-body union.
The Narrative of Anton Wilhelm Amo
Anton Wilhelm Amo, born circa 1700 in Guinea, present-day Ghana, arrived at Wolfenbüttel’s court around 1705, ruled by Duke Anton Ulrich [1633–1714]. From the Modern Period until the end of the nineteenth century, two-thirds of the slaves that left Africa were taken from West Africa, Amo’s home (Lovejoy 2011). It is unclear how or why Amo ended up at Wolfenbüttel; but what is clear is that he was taken from his home and unable to escape the reality of many West Africans. While at Wolfenbüttel Amo must have impressed the Duke and his sons, because Amo was given educational opportunities unlike the other Moors in the Duke’s service. In return Amo excelled educationally by receiving multiple degrees, learning at least six languages, and receiving the praise of his advisors.
On November 28, 1728, at the University of Halle, Amo defended his master’s disputation De jure maurorum in Europa (On the Rights of Moors in Europe), which remains lost; this text argued that Moors were Roman citizens, and as Roman citizens, they could not be enslaved in the Holy Roman Empire. Later that year Amo transferred to the University of Wittenberg where in 1734 he defended his dissertation De humanae mentis Apatheia [On the Impassivity of the Human Mind], in which he investigates the logical inconsistencies in René Descartes’ [1596–1650]. Amo argued that (1) the mind neither senses material things nor does it (2) contain the faculty of sensing. For Amo, there is an impasse between the mind and sensations, because the mind is immaterial (active) and sensations necessarily need to occur upon something passive and material (body). Therefore, Amo concluded, sensations could only ever be cognized by the mind and affect the body. On the title page of this dissertation, we learn about Amo’s academic degrees: a Master’s in Philosophy, a Master’s in Liberal Arts, a Candidacy of Both Laws (Canon and Civil), and a Doctoral Degree in Philosophy.
He held the rank of magister and was given a licentia legend, a license to teach as a magister, at the universities of Wittenberg, Halle, and Jena. In 1738 at the University of Halle, Amo published his only book, Tractatus de arte sobrie et accurate philosophandi [Treatise on the Art of Soberly and Accurately Philosophizing]. Similar to logic texts of his time, Amo’s Tractatus attempts to develop rules or a method of directing one’s mind toward thinking accurately, which he actually believed possible. Furthermore, he discusses the intellective act of the mind and its effects on reflection. Amo, a true renaissance man, wrote poetry and published a drawing of a woman sniffing tobacco. In 1747 he boarded a Dutch West India Company’s ship and returned to Axim, his home in Africa – where he was known as a hermit and soothsayer.
- Lovejoy PE (2011) Transformations in slavery: a history of slavery in Africa, vol 117. Cambridge University Press, New York, NYGoogle Scholar